• 23 April 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran, Sanctions, UN

Changing Course on Iran Sanctions

This post appeared in today’s The Hill newspaper.

New sanctions on Iran are about the surest bet in Washington these days.

Both the House and the Senate have passed a “crippling” gasoline embargo, and the administration has all but given up talk of negotiations in favor of pressing for UN Security Council sanctions “that bite.” In fact, the only thing left that the administration and Congress disagree on is whether the new sanctions should target all of Iranian society or just the hardliners in power — not an insignificant disagreement by any measure, but one that underscores the broader acceptance of the argument that new sanctions are the only game in town.

But given the fact that the U.S. has sanctioned Iran for decades with little to show for it, the debate over U.S.-Iran policy should not be boiled down to a question of how much more damage we can do. Rather, smart power dictates that the U.S. use every tool available, including those that have been taken off the table, such as lifting certain sanctions.

No one expects the U.S. to unilaterally lift its embargo on Iran. But certain sanctions have unambiguously failed to achieve their objective, contributing instead to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. These should be reexamined, and where appropriate, lifted.

This has already been done once this year. As Iranians were using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize after the June election, U.S. sanctions actually made some of these vital tools illegal for Iranians. Luckily, the State Department and the Treasury acted to remove this restriction. This actually increased the pressure on the regime, since every tweet made Ahmadinejad sweat a little more.

This idea has support across the political spectrum. The Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said, “It’s exactly what I think OFAC needs to be doing, not simply designating new targets or tightening sanctions, but also loosening sanctions when it can further our foreign policy goals.” Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy celebrated the decision to waive the Internet sanctions, calling it “an extremely prudent move,” and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) even introduced legislation to enact this very change last year.

Relaxing Internet sanctions on Iran was an important step in helping the Iranian people utilize the free flow of information to plot their own destiny, but it was only a first step. Similar steps should be taken, in concert with multilateral engagement and targeted pressure on Iran’s human rights abusers, to give the Iranian people the best chance they have to realize their century-long struggle for democracy.

American NGOs are the world’s leaders in promoting human rights, basic humanitarian assistance, and vital aid for some of the Iranian people’s most vexing problems. But sanctions prevent groups like Relief International and Mercy Corps from working in Iran. These and other groups assisted the victims of the Bam earthquake in 2004 under a rare special exemption from sanctions issued by the Treasury Department. Never before has the United States carried out such effective public diplomacy than when American relief workers dug through rubble in Iran to the cheers of Iranian onlookers.

However, after the 180-day exemption period expired, the Americans were told to hastily pack up their things and return home, lest they violate U.S. sanctions.

Surely, lifesaving medical care and disaster relief services are not somehow “dual-use.” Sanctions that prohibit legitimate aid organizations from saving lives do nothing to punish the Iranian government, and only add to the misery of the Iranian people.

The same can be said of human rights organizations. Human rights are the No. 1 problem facing the Iranian people today. And though the Iranian government would likely bar organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International from entering the country, they currently don’t have to: U.S. sanctions prohibit rights groups from working on the ground in Iran.

As members of the House and Senate set out today to finalize legislation imposing yet greater burdens on the Iranian people by cutting off Iran’s gasoline supply, conferees should sit up and take note. When the final version of the bill is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, it should include constructive provisions like those put forward by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Moran. Ellison authored the Stand With the Iranian People Act, which would remove sanctions on U.S. NGOs and punish companies that provide repressive technology to Iran’s government; and Moran is championing H.R. 4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act, to expand the Internet software waiver to include anti-censorship and anti-surveillance tools to make the Internet safer for Iranians.

Enacting these and other similar measures would send a powerful signal that the U.S. is able to distinguish between the Iranian government and its people.

Much more than the “crippling” sanctions that nearly everyone supports but that no one believes will work, Congress and the administration should make reforming existing sanctions a central element of their Iran strategy.

Patrick Disney is the assistant policy director at the National Iranian American Council. Lara Friedman is the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Posted By Patrick Disney

    3 Responses to “Changing Course on Iran Sanctions”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Don’t leave out the fact that sanctions against Iran also hinder US business interests, which in turn represent potential big business lost, and by extension American jobs not garnered.

    Just think for a moment if US business interests were allowed to develop Iran’s oil and gas industries. And ust think if US business were allowed to develop Iran’s ambitious nuclear power network. We’re potentially talking about deals in the many hundreds of billions of US dollars.

    But no! We’re not allowed. Why? Because according to the Israel lobby, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s economy must be stifled in order to retain Israel’s regional preeminence. And what’s the surest way of accomplishing this? The demonization of Iran.

    So every time you participate in demonizing Iran, realize that you’re enabling a process that hinders US interests, as well as Iran’s, and that citizens from both countries are losing out.

    By the way, Patrick, the new NIAC web site looks great. It’s a big improvement.

  2. Iranian-American says:

    “So every time you participate in demonizing Iran, realize that you’re enabling a process that hinders US interests, as well as Iran’s, and that citizens from both countries are losing out.”

    Instead we should turn a blind eye to the arrests, torture and murder of our fellow Iranian brothers and sisters by the Islamic Republic. Instead we should ignore all injustices against women in Iran, and against our Ba’hai brothers and sisters. Instead we should make believe that Iran has “access to food, education and healthcare”, despite the obvious reality for anyone who has ever been to Iran. After all anything else would clearly be exactly what the evil and all-powerful AIPAC wants.

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Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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